Bogus marriages lead to a guilty plea

A federal campaign targets bogus marriages performed solely so an immigrant partner can obtain a green card.
A federal campaign targets bogus marriages performed solely so an immigrant partner can obtain a green card.
Posted: April 10, 2014

A classic recording of "Here Comes the Bride" played in the house turned wedding chapel where U.S. citizen Jill Ritsky of Philadelphia married an Uzbek immigrant in a civil ceremony.

Snapping photos for the couple's album was Larissa V. Hlukha, a self-employed international consultant, notary public, and Russian interpreter.

A year later, Hlukha was present again at the Yerkes Wedding Salon, a Victorian parlor inside half a duplex in East Lansdowne, where Philadelphian Charles Brion exchanged vows with a woman from Ukraine. Again it was Hlukha who had made the introduction and got photos of them tying the knot.

A prolific matchmaker? You bet. And much more than that.

As Congress seems forever on the cusp of an immigration overhaul, Hlukha showed that one of the oldest back doors into the country is still in use: the sham marriage.

Across the region since 2007, about a dozen immigrants have paid her as much as $25,000 - to find Americans to walk them down the aisle as impostor spouses, pose in photos, and spout arranged answers on marriage license applications and to immigration officials vetting petitions for green cards.

There are no official statistics on how many immigrants turn to facilitators or cook up schemes on their own, say the federal prosecutors who built a case against Hlukha, 56.

She pleaded guilty last week to one count each of fraud and conspiracy. At her sentencing July 23 in U.S. District Court in Philadelphia, she will face up to 15 years in prison and $500,000 in fines.

In an interview Tuesday, her attorney, Patrick J. Egan, said, "She made a mistake." He said "mostly good people" who had run out of options came to her for help. Her prosecution, he said, "says more about our broken policies than it does about my client."

Homeland Security officials could not disagree more.

"Marriage fraud undermines the integrity of our legal immigration system and poses significant security vulnerabilities," said John Kelleghan, special agent in charge of Immigration and Customs Enforcement/Homeland Security Investigations in Philadelphia.

When immigrants "game the system" to get a green card through marriage fraud, said Kelleghan, it could be because they want to stay in America for more nefarious reasons that could include acts of terrorism or gain employment in areas of critical infrastructure. Those are among the national security risks.

In Hlukha's case, Kelleghan said, investigators believe the wedding salon and the justices of the peace who officiated were unaware of the scam.

Qualified immigrants who marry U.S. citizens can petition for green cards provided they prove the marriage is bona fide.

Examples of the necessary proof can include photos of the couple at their wedding, leases showing joint tenancy of a common residence, and documentation of commingled finances. Couples are subject to interview - together and apart - by immigration adjudicators.

According to court records, Hlukha, of Warrington, Bucks County, teamed with Ritsky, 46, and Brion, 50, to recruit individuals as citizen-spouses, and paid cash for their participation. The records cite a dozen cases from September 2007 to April 2011, all involving immigrants from Ukraine, Russia, or Uzbekistan.

Charging $20,000 to $25,000 per marriage, Hlukha helped obtain Pennsylvania marriage licenses at county courthouses, prepared false documents for submission to U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services, and rehearsed "legitimate-sounding" answers to questions that adjudicators could be expected to ask: When and where was their wedding? Who does the shopping? Where? What kind of toothpaste do they use?

As part of her service, Hlukha had the couple sign a document agreeing to stay in the marriage until the immigrant became a permanent resident. After that, either could file for divorce.

Concern about scam marriages was high in the mid-1980s, after a commissioner of the Immigration and Naturalization Service (a precursor to USCIS) estimated that nearly 30 percent of applications for spousal green card petitions involved counterfeit marriages. The figure was later revised to less than 10 percent, but not before Congress had added marriage fraud amendments to immigration law.

Concern about all forms of immigration fraud spiked after the 9/11 terrorist attacks. It increased again after a U.S. intelligence report, attributed to Abu Zubaydah, a senior member of al-Qaeda, who had been arrested in Pakistan in 2002, said some members of his group "married American women to obtain U.S. visas."

In 2013 the government began a media campaign with the theme of "citizenship, the most valuable benefit offered by this country, is not for sale."

One campaign poster juxtaposes images of a wedding chapel and a prison tier.

"If you walk down this aisle for the wrong reasons," it states across the chapel photo, "you could end up walking down this aisle," it adds across the prison shot.



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